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About the Episode
This episode is brought to you by the Museum’s Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.
At our 15th International Conference in 2022, we had the privilege to hear from Nicole Spangenberg in conversation with the Craig Institute’s Senior Historian, Dr. Steph Hinnershitz.
As a teenager working with the French Resistance, Spangenberg assisted with daring missions to aid her country in the struggle against Nazi occupation. From delivering supplies and messages for her local resistance network to providing aid to wounded partisans, Spangenberg's work is an important reminder of the crucial role women played in the fight against fascism.
If you would like to view the original conversation, you can see it here:
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Topics Covered in this Episode
- French Resistance
- Nazi occupation of France
- Vichy régime
- T-34 medium tank
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Featured Historians & Guests
A member of the French Resistance as a teenager, Nicole Spangenberg assisted with daring missions to aid her country against Nazi occupation during World War II.
Steph Hinnershitz, Ph.D.
Steph received her PhD from the University of Maryland in 2013 and held various teaching positions before coming to The National WWII Museum. She has published three books and multiple articles on topics related to Asian American history and the Home Front during World War II.
Stalingrad and the Growth of the Anti-Nazi Resistance
News of the crushing Soviet victory at Stalingrad in February 1943 over the Third Reich and its satellite states struck the rest of Europe, indeed the globe, like a thunderbolt.
Stephanie Hinnershitz, PhD
Stephanie Hinnershitz is a historian of twentieth century US history with a focus on the Home Front and civil-military relations during World War II.
History, Imperialism, and Revolution: C.L.R. James and Fascist Italy’s Invasion of Ethiopia
C.L.R. James (1901-1989) called for mass resistance to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
Käthe Leichter, Champion for Austria’s Working-Class Women
Käthe Leichter (1895-1942) was a champion for working-class women in the Austrian labor movement.
"World War II On Topic" is made possible by The Herzstein Foundation.
Welcome to World War II on topic. I'm Jeremy Collins, the director of conferences in symposia at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. This episode is brought to you by the museum's Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. At our 15th international conference in 2022, we had the privilege to hear from Nicole Spangenberg in conversation with the institute's senior historian, Dr. Steph Hinnershitz.
Nicole, as a teenager working with the French Resistance, assisted with Daring Missions to aid her country in the struggle against Nazi occupation, from delivering supplies and messages for her local Resistance network to providing aid to wounded partisans, Nicole's work is an important reminder of the crucial role women played in the fight against fascism.
Dr. Mike Bell
We're actually going to continue the discussions about Resistance with this panel, which is a conversation between Jenny Craig Institute Senior Historian Steph Hinnershitz, who many of you recall chaired of panel on Women in Resistance Movements yesterday, and with Nicole Spangenberg.
Now recall also, we introduced Nicole yesterday to the audience, and now here's a great chance to hear from her. Nicole was a member of the French Resistance as a teenager and assisted with daring Missions to aider country against Nazi occupation during the Second World War, from delivering supplies and messages from members of our local Resistance network to tending to wounded Partisans, Nicole's work is an important reminder of the importance of everyone to include women in the fight against fascism.
So without further delay, Steph, it's all yours.
Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz
All right. All right, thank you everyone, and thank you, Mike, for that introduction and probably doesn't need much of an introduction from me, but I'm very honored to have Nicole here with us today, and we're going to keep, like Mike had mentioned, keep with this theme of Resistance and especially with the roles of women in the different Resistance Movements.
So like I said, we are really, really honored to have a member here with us to tell us about her story, and then also a little bit later to expand out and give you some more details about other women who were also important for the movement. I would like to start off, Nicole, just asking you to give us a little bit of your background, growing up. Tell us a little bit about your story before you actually got into the Resistance Movement.
Well, when I was a little girl, of course, I grew up in Paris where I was born, and during the war, of course, we were always advised not to make eye contact with any other German that we would see in the street when the German were in Paris. And I think one of the things that I remember the most is a cold, believe it or not, the cold in Paris in winter is a terrible cold.
Of course, no apartment and no school had heat, so we had to bundle up to go to school, and we had to bundle up to be in the houses. And my parents had a great big apartment in Paris, unfortunately. So we only had one room where we lived. I mean, we actually just lived in one room and we had a little stove that went through the window, and this is how we lived through the winter.
Of course, before I went to school, what I would do, I would go and be in a queue, in a queue, at the dairy to get the milk or butter, or if we could get butter, or anything that I could get with a ration, and then I would go to school and somebody else would come and replace me at the queue. The food, of course, as you probably all know, was not pretty good, was not good at all. We had [?] coffee. Butter was no butter, but we made do. After the war, it took me years to finally eat pasta because we had pasta almost every day.
So the main thing was as I grew a little older, 13, 14, we had parties and the main thing was to run for that last metro, the last subway, before the curfew was on. Because if we had a curfew, and boy, if you didn't make the metro, you were really in trouble because you did not want to be in the street, ask by the German what you were doing in the street and be taken to the [?], so that, you didn't want to do.
So, life in Paris was more or less normal that way, except that we had all these restriction and we knew that we had to abide by this restriction. Then later on when the bombardment came, we decided we had to leave Paris because our apartment was very close to a auto place. I think Fiat was there and the bombardment were heavy on the particular place.
So my parents had a place in Brittany, not Normandy, the but in Brittany. So this is where we went for a while. But then the Germans of course invaded all of Brittany, so there was no point in staying there. We couldn't go to the beach. Everything was barbed wire, and you probably still see today the encampment that they had there. So after a year, we went back to Paris, but then the bombardment continued and it was really almost untenable.
At that time, in my family, there was my mother, my stepfather, because my parents had divorced when I was nine and remarried, and each had a new family, and then I have two little sister. One was three years old and one was one and a half. So at this particular time, France were still divided in two. You had the occupied zone and the non-occupied zone.
So my stepfather decided this is where we are going to the non-occupied zone. So we started building a house in Cannes on the Riviera, which is where we went. Well, that was idyllic for a few months, and then of course, the German came and took over all of France. So it started all over again. And if you have been in Cannes, you'll know that there is a station, a railway station, right in the middle of Cannes. So that again, became a big target from the Allies.
So this is where I got into it. So here we were again in Cannes trying to escape Paris, but we were in Cannes, and the bombardment started now from the Allies trying to cut the line that was coming from Italy to France. So what to do, I was now 16 years old, and I had left school in Paris. I had gone to Brittany and I was in Cannes, and I was back in Cannes in school, but it was chaotic, as you can imagine.
So my stepfather decided, the invasion is going to come very soon, so let's just leave Cannes because of the bombards, and we'll go into the Basses-Alpes, the bottom of the Alps, and we'll stay there until it's over at the Allied Invasion had taken place. So that's what we did.
We went to the Basses-Alpes in a little place called Beauvezer, in a little village. Charming little village? It was not. It was just a run-of-the-mill village, very, very small. We had one grocery store, one little church and Hotel Deville, and that was it. So there we were in a hotel with my family, which then consisted also with my grandmother who had come with us, my stepmother, my mother, and my two little sisters.
Then in the hotel was also a Jewish doctor, Dr. Dagdale, who was there for the same reason we were. And there was also a nurse who was there, also for the same reason we were with her two little children. So where I was, and what to do, nothing. So I borrowed a bicycle and I tried to go around and see what I could see and just idle the day that way.
Then of course, one day on one of my foray, I saw a young man coming out of a bush, really, and he was about at my age or maybe a little older, and he had a gun slung over his shoulder. Well, I knew who he was, of course. So naturally I was 16, he must have been 17 or 18. We started to talk, naturally.
So he told me what he was doing, I knew that already, and he should have told me anyway. And then I told him that where I was at, the hotel that we had in nurse, and we had a doctor. "Oh," he said, "You have a doctor and a nurse. Well, we have some wounded and we would love to be able to get to them to help us."
So I tried to arrange something between them, and indeed, the head of the cell came to the hotel and met the doctor and met the nurse, and they decided that they would bring the wounded to the hotel. Well, that was very tricky and it was very dangerous, and the hotel manager wasn't looking at this in the very good eye at all, as you can imagine. But anyway, they did.
So they brought some wounded and came to be really kind of a infirmary of a sort, and we put mattresses on the floor and the doctor and the nurse did what they could with what they had, because they didn't have very many resources. So this went on for some time. Then to back up a little bit, the German could not occupy every inch of any territory anywhere. So what they were doing, they would be in a certain town, which was the principal town, and then all the little villages around would not have any Germans.
But what they do, they would come from time to time in a reconnaissance trip, shall we say, and of course, they would ask who had been in the Resistance or in the black market. And sometime people would say who they were, and of course they were just taken right over and of course shot right there on the spot. There was no German where we were. We knew that, but we knew where they were, they were in Ding.
So one day… Before that, let me back up a little bit. Then I had of course established this relationship between myself and the Resistance, and I was able to finagle a few things to pass from one cell to another, etc., on my bicycle. So there we were, one day we heard that the German were coming, so panic at the hotel, what are we going to do?
So my parents got very busy trying to see what they were going to do, where they're going to leave, trying to get together, my sister, my grandmother, etc. Then everybody in the hotel was in the same panic mode. So I ran to the infirmary, where I'd been volunteering all this time with the doctor and the nurse. And fortunately for me, they had taught me a few things like making a dressing, doing a dressing, just whatever I could, I learned with them, which was good later on.
So there we were, and I could see that everything was so chaotic. So I rented infirmary where a wounded were, and I realized that nobody was going to go with them anywhere. I came back to my mother to the room, and I told her that I was going with them. So that didn't sit very well, as you can imagine, and she tried to keep me and cried and so forth.
But of course, she was very much right now in the mode of trying to get her own family together to go and where to go. So I fell into the crack. So I went back to the infirmary, took a great big bag and put everything I could in the bag. Then a truck came to pick up the van, the van from the infirmary, and I just went for them.
So we came to a pass and we came to a place where there was a hiking path going up the mountain. So the wounded came out from the truck, there were probably about 20 of them, and they were another girl there and her brother, both with guns. So they were definitely for the Resistance, and they were our guides.
So when they got off the truck, the truck was just pushed into the ravine, and I saw that they had three mules, and one of the mules had bread, just big loaves of bread on the mule, and then the other one didn't have anything. So we put two of the most wounded on the mules, and we started up the pass, this hiking pass, which was very, very narrow and very difficult.
It was only really for the hikers who came to that little village to just do that, hiking in the mountains. So fortunately, we had these two guys, the girl was in front with her brother guiding us, and it became very perilous, because it became, of course, more torturous than we went going up.
I was scared to death that the mules were going to really fall into the ravine because [?] you had a great big rock face on the right and the ravine on the left. I thought, oh my goodness, they're going to just fall into the ravine, but they didn't.
We went on and it was very hard on the men, and they were moaning and crying, and I think only the fear of the German was the only thing that really pushed them to go on, because they really wanted to just stop and understandably. It took us quite awful long time to go out to this place, which was after going through a forest, up and up and up, and went to about 8,000 feet. So it was quite high.
And we came to this clearing, and there was a barn in this clearing, but it was not really a full barn, but it was a barn that maybe had one side completely open where they had bales of hay for the animals that came up to the pasture in the summertime. So we decided to make that our camp, so the bales of hay then became beds, and fortunately there was a little brook not very far from the place.
We were able to get the water from there, drinking water, which we drank, because it was so high in the mountain, we thought it was the water was pure there. So we drank the water from there, and I used it to sterilize whatever I had to help men with the dressing and to do whatever I could. Again, I really had no experience. I was no nurse. I was just a school girl.
So I did what I could, but thank goodness what the doctor and the nurse had showed me to do when we were done in the village. So this went on for some time, and every other day, we had a group that came up from down below and brought us food and news. So after a few days, thank goodness, I was so surprised to see the doctor arrive. Dr. Dagdale arrive. I was so overjoyed. Thank goodness I could take a lot of responsibility, put in on him.
Oh, and by the way, of course at night wanted to let you know about this barn. This was a barn. We had of course, no electricity and no water, but you also had rats and you had mice, and at night, they would just got to go all around. And I didn't like that very much.
Then another thing, which I really didn't like either, is that all the able-bodied people, me included, had to take, what do you call that? Watch at night with a gun. And I was scared to death. The noises in the forest at night is unbelievable. So every time I thought the Germans are coming, the Germans are coming, but was probably just a mouse or something in the forest. So these was really the thing that I've really didn't like about that, the mice on the floor and the watch at night, it didn't go very well with me.
But thank God the doctor had come. So I put everything off onto him, and we had among them, a young pole, young Polish man, very young. He was blonde, tall, good looking, very nice young man who didn't speak a word of French or word of English, just Polish, Polish. It was difficult, but he was probably our most serious one there. I had seen when we were there, the gangrene was going up his leg.
When the doctor saw that, he said, "Hmm, this is very, very, very serious, and in order to save his life, we're going to have to cut his leg." So the man took down some planks from the barn, assembled them to make a makeshift table, and we put him on the table. With man holding him down, we plied him with Calvados. I don't know whether you know what Calvados is. It's a [?].
Tied him down, and Dr. Dagdale proceeded to cut his leg without any anesthesia, and of course, I had to help him. So that does remain one of the big moments in my life, I can assure you. So after that, we went on for some time, and it was time to go and leave to go somewhere else for safety reason. But as we were ready to go, my stepfather came, arrived, unbeknownst to me and told me that even if he had to tie me up, I was going back down.
So I had to go back down with him, very angry and very rebellious. I went back and my mother had gone with my family, with my father and my two little sister, and my grandmother had found another hotel because they had left that hotel. They found another hotel, and this is where I went, and I was practically under lock and key until the Allied Invasion.
So after that, we all went back to Cannes, the doctor, the nurse, and myself, and the doctor and I had been keeping in touch. So he became one of the main doctors in one of the makeshift hospital on the Riviera between Nice and Cannes. It had been a hotel, but because of the FFI coming in, Free Forces of the Interior, came in. This particular hotel had been turning into a hospital.
I went back with Dr. Dagdale, and this is when I got my formal papers. Then I got my ID in the FFI, and I got my armband of the FFI, which is now in the museum as a matter of fact. So I went on like this for a while until we decided to go back to Paris, and that was really the end of my extent with the Resistance.
Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz
Excellent. Thank you, Nicole. So I do want to ask you before we turn it over to Q and A, because you had such a rich story and really honored to hear all of your experiences, how representative was your experience, do you think, with other women who served in the Resistance? Because I know you do have a few examples, and so if you could give the audience some context about what, we heard what makes you special, but are there other examples of this?
There were lots of women who were really extraordinary heroes, and some of their story are so much better than the fiction that you read that sometimes you just can't believe that it's really happened. I would like to tell of two women, if I may.
One is Krystyna Skarbek, who was Polish, a Polish aristocrat, glamorous, passionate, and totally fearless. She led the life of romance, danger and thrills, and became one of Britain's most important and daring spy, a favorite of Churchill and mine. She was born in Warsaw in 1908 to Count and Countess Jerzy Skarbek and raised on their large estate where she learned to shoot, ride horses and ski in the adjacent Tatra Mountains.
She was fluent in German and French and English. While still in her teen. She married a young businessman, but they were incompatible, and she divorced soon after. When she was 22, her father died after having really gambled the whole estate away. So they found themselves penny less, and she and her mother had to move to Warsaw, where she tried to find a job.
She did find a job at the Fiat factory, but her lungs became affected by the fumes and scarred. So at the advice of a doctor, she resumed her life on the outside and went back when she could to skiing, which she excelled, learning all of the back woods of his mountains.
Actually, it is on the slope that she met her second husband a tall, taciturn, but brilliant diplomats, 20 years older than she. Jerzy Giżycki came from a wealthy family, which enabled him to do whatever he wanted to do without any restriction of a job. A talented linguist, he became a Polish diplomat as well as a writer.
He loved to ski in the Tatra Mountain. One afternoon while skiing, he saw this young woman struggling and falling on the steep slope, which had become very icy in a sudden blizzard. He skied over to her and grabbed her bodily averting her coming fall.
Although 20 years her senior, Jerzy married Krystyna a few months later in Warsaw, then they went to Ethiopia where Jersey was posted, but they came back to London when Germany invaded Poland. Krystyna was introduced to M-16, the British intelligence, which so impressed by her language skills, her independence, and her willingness to help a country, that they promptly recruited her.
Krystyna first mission was to go to Hungary then in neutral country, her cover being a journalist. Many Poles after the German invasion were trying to escape to Hungary any way they could as a border was still opened, and Krystyna made a lot of the compatriots. Among them, she met a young dashing lieutenant by the name of Andrzej Kowerski.
According to the writer, Clare Mulley, Andrew was tall and well built with dark blonde hair, intense blue eyes, and utterly charming and fearless, while enjoying a life at its fullest. Upon meeting, these two must have recognized their own similarities of characters, and a spark was lit that would endure all their lives.
Like the famous American by Virginia Hall, due to a hunting accident, Andrzej had lost one leg below the knee and wore his prothetic leg. After fighting with a Black Brigade, he was awarded an highest Poland military decoration, the Virtuti medal. Lines of communication between Hungary and Poland were badly needed as German propaganda that controlled the news, effectively cutting off Poland from the rest of the world.
Hungary was a neutral country, but its government was more likely to cooperate with Germany than to the Allies. So under the guise of a being a journalist, Krystyna was sent to Budapest to open a courier channel and try to get into Poland, that she did against all advices. In February when the snow was deep, but she managed to persuade Olympic skier Jan Marusarz to guide her, and she set off on her ski to cross the border to Poland, where she organized a system of couriers and supplied funding.
On one of a mission there, hidden in her ski jacket, she brought back a microfilm detailing preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the proposed invasion of the Soviet Union. Andrzej was also directed to go to Budapest and has also been ordered to work with Krystyna to form a team to gather intelligence on river and train traffic traveling between Germany and Romania, and tracking movement of frontier guards on the Yugoslav and Slovakian border.
But their luck finally ran out, and I guess, they were arrested by the Gestapo. During the interrogation, Krystyna bit her tongue so hard that in bled and the Gestapo, fearing that she had acute tuberculosis, let them go.
In 1942, 1953, they continued their work in different countries, setting up bases, recruiting and training agents, bringing money and supply, and of course, finding out that they were now very much in love. By that time, both were under surveillance by the Gustavo, and so they were given new identities.
She became Christine Granville and Andreas, Andrew Kennedy, which name they kept for the rest of their lives. The team was sent to Turkey and then to Cairo, where waiting for new assignment, Krystyna learned wireless skills. Because of her ability in speaking French, she was given a new name, Pauline Armand. She was issued a crash helmet, a revolver, a cyanide pill, and four French papers.
She was then parachuted down to the Velika Plateau in the Alps where she met her new boss, Francisca Myers. Now, I want to stop you a minute and tell you this it was really blew my mind when I did this research to realize that she and I were in the same place at the same time. I would've never met her, because I was just a little fly on the wall, but she would've probably met the head of my cell and brought to us ammunition and money and whatever she had to bring.
So Francis Cammaerts was one of the best operator of the country, his jockey network coordinated Resistance groups from the Rhone Valley to the Riviera and as far North as Grenoble. In the adjacent mountain in the Basses-Alpes, there was Maquis, which you know what the Maquis is. There, of course, this is where the young Maquis were hiding and prepared the fights, the ambushes, and the sabotage necessary to counter the German offenses.
Pauline, alias Christine, bicycle, walked, hiked to bring money, ammunition, and training to the diverse Resistance cells in the region. Sabotage was needed to delay any German offensive that might hinder the coming of the Allied invasion, Operation Dragoon. According to the writer Clare Mulley, as the German retreated, 200 villages where somebody murdered and raped, captured Marquis were burned alive in building or left hanging by piano wire.
The Marquis lost over 600 men. In one of a more audacious feat, upon hearing that Commander Cammaerts had been captured with two of his colleagues and was waiting for execution, Christine, alias Pauline, marched into the German prison, purported to be the niece of General Montgomery, and threatened them with terrible reprisal from the approaching allies if they did indeed execute this man, and unbelievably, again, Cammaerts and these men were let go.
Another one of her extraordinary exploits, upon hearing that about 60 Poles were conscripted in a German garrison in Col de Larche, a key German garrison on the border of the French and Italian Alps, she got a loud hailer, I think that was a megaphone, which must have been akin to a megaphone.
She walked all the way up the mountain with a few men and speaking in Polish, urged the man to mutiny and desert, which they eventually did. The German commander faced with mutiny from the Pole, who then left taking away with their mortar and military equipment, had no option but to surrender to the French.
Krystyna's breathtaking achievements were recognized with an OBE, Officer of the British Empire, and the Croix de Guerre from the French government. But shamefully, shamefully, this extraordinary woman was dismissed with a month's salary and a new British citizenship, otherwise penny less and unable to find employment. After several tries as a telephone operator, a salesperson, a waitress, she finally found a job as a steward on an ocean liner.
A fellow steward, Dennis Muldowney, of course, became infatuated with her, obsessed with her, and started to stalk her. One evening as she was returning from dinner with some friends, he waited in the street for her, and when she entered the hotel in Kensington where she lived between her ocean liner jobs, he followed her into the lobby, and with a long-bladed knife that he was hiding under his coat, stabbed her to death, Muldowney was hung for his crime. As for Andrew, who had recently reconnected with her, he asked that upon his death, his ashes be put at the foot of her grave.
Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz
So I'm going to actually have some time later during Q and A, because these stories are absolutely amazing. But I want to thank you for telling us Krystyna's story. And before I turn over for Q and A, I want to ask you, why is it so important for all of us in this room to know the stories of you, but also of women like Krystyna? Why should we know them? Why should perhaps more young women know these stories and young people in general?
Well, because as you all know, in school today, God, country, duty, sacrifice are no longer in school, and we need to put them back. We need them today as much as we ever did. So I think that perhaps a program highlighting the extraordinary story of men and women might just get that little spark that sometimes is needed to alter a course of a life or to alter somebody's idea about what they want to do.
Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz
We had a good conversation about what things I read as a young girl, and so I was telling Nicole about the American Girl books. So if you know about the American Girl books, I feel like most women my age who are historians probably got into history from the American Girl books. So I think exactly what you just said, hearing stories of women like you and Krystyna, and also the men as well, I think, could be very inspiring. So I want to thank you, Nicole. And then I will turn it over to Jeremy.
Thank you very much, Nicole Spangenberg and Steph Hinnershitz. Round of applause, please.
The unique opportunity to speak to somebody who was actually there is now yours, please raise your hand and we'll bring you the microphone. So Connie's in the back, and I'm here in the front. We will start to your left, ladies, if you follow me.
I'm curious if you know what happened to the young Polish man who you had to amputate his leg if he survived, and what happened afterwards?
No, he did not survive. He did not survive.
Nicole, a quick follow up to that. Any of the individuals that were assisted by this network, was there any communication after the war?
Well, unfortunately, what happened is that after they had moved to another location, the German did find them and set fore to the other barn they were in, and the one who were able to walk were able to escape, and the other ones did not. So most of them were shot.
We're going to go to your right in the very back row with Connie, please. Nicole, you said you had two stories, and you may not have time to tell the story of the second woman, but could you give us her name so we could look it up?
Yes, yes. This is an extraordinary story. It's better than fiction. I assure show you. Her name is Maria Oktyabrskaya. I will have to get for you and give you the...
We will keep the slide up a little bit longer so people can write that last name down, please.
It's a very short story.
Well, go ahead and share it for a moment.
It's very short, but it's kind of fun. Maria was born in 1905 to a peasant couple, one of 10 children. She was beautiful with dark hair, large velvety eyes. She educated herself and took a job as a telephone operator. Then she met and married the love of a life, a young dashing Russian officer by the name of Ilia Oktyabrskaya. But they were both very interested in military affair, and sometime they'd just spend the evening in talking about military things, the battles, the general, the tactics, etc.
But of course, it was war, and he was called to the front. And unfortunately, he was killed. The news unbelievably did not return until two years later, speaking of communication. So when she heard, of course, she was totally devastated, totally devastated. But then she got enraged. She had to do something, but what?
So she sold her house. She sold her meager jewelry. She sold all of her possessions, and what could she do with that money? What did she do? She bought a T-34 medium tank that she baptized The Fighting Girlfriend. Then she enrolled herself into a five months training program as a driver and mechanic, so that she could do the thing herself.
After completing her training, she wrote Stalin and asked him if she could join the man at the front. Of course, that was terrific PR, and of course he said yes. So she joined then the 26th Guard Tank Brigade of the front. She called her tank The Fighting Girlfriend. Many of the fellow tankers saw her as a publicity stunt and a joke.
But then the attitude changed when Maria began fighting. She fought in her first battle in 1943, maneuvering her tank in intense fighting. And when her tank was hit, disregarding orders, she lept out and affected the repairs herself. While fighting another battle, though, she earned the respect of her fellow tankers.
But in 1944, while fighting at night in the Leningrad Offensive, her tank was hit by anti-tank shell. And while she was out of the turret to try to repair her tank, mortar shell fragment hit her in the head, and she lost consciousness and never regained consciousness and died two months later. That's the story of the tank lady.
Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz
So Nicole, I actually wanted to jump in here real quick. You had mentioned earlier in your talk a ribbon that is here at the museum. Is that what you said? Could you–
Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz
So you can tell us a little bit about it.
Oh, well, it's the arm band that I got from the FFI, which has Forces françaises de l'Intérieur, when I got back to Cannes, and I have my identity card, so it would allow me to just go back and forth freely with my armband in my identity card. So the armband is now in the museum.
And by the way, I also want to mention the Lysander, which is in the museum. The plane, the Lysander, which was used mostly from London to bring the spy from London to wherever they were going, particularly to France.
Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz
Nicole, our friend James Holland had a question asking me if you live in the United States or France, and I said a little bit of both, because you live in New Orleans.
That's right. That's why I'm here.
Can you tell people how you came to New Orleans and then there's going to be a question in the aisle that I'll get to.
Well, as you probably didn't know by now, I'm rubbing pulses. So I was living then in the United States in Virginia, and I decided I was going to stay, and my grandmother went back to Europe, and I decided I was going to stay. So I took a job and somebody said, "Oh, you should go to New Orleans. Everybody speaks French." So I said, "Well, why not?"
So I booked a ticket that came to New Orleans. I had a few letters of introduction to some ladies in New Orleans, but I also had a little notebook that I had kept, and I had the name of some people that I knew, and I thought, hmm, I'm going to call them. So one of them was the Bob Spangenberg, whom I had known during the war, actually, after the war when he was at a rest camp.
And I knew that he was married and had two little children, I thought he'd be doing a great time to meet them. So we agreed to meet. And it so happened that at that particular time, in those days, there was a French ship that used to come to New Orleans around Christmastime. It was a school ship, and it would be here for Christmas and during the duration of the holidays.
It so happened that the command, the ship captain, I had known also in France, and so we're supposed to have a grand evening that evening with Bob Spangenberg and the captain of the vessel and myself. And then he called and said at the last minute he couldn't come, he couldn't leave the ship, because something had happened on the ship. He had to stay, so Bob was going to bring his little brother. So I said, okay, I didn't like that. I said, okay.
So he brought the little brother, and that was on a Sunday, I believe. So it was on a Sunday, and by Saturday we were engaged, and we've been married 67 years.
I'm in the Spangenberg family. And I think Nicole forgot to mention that Bob Spangenberg was skipper of a PT boat in France, and that's how you met him.
That's right. Thank you.
During your time, you were at the underground. How did you control your fear when you were doing a mission?
Well, to begin with, I think that this is true of all 16 years old, you're never going to die. At 16, you're just not, and you don't think about that. You just don't think about that. Well, you think about it from time to time, but not really. It doesn't keep you from doing anything that you want to do.
All the way in the very back center aisle, please.
Bonjour, Nicole, ça va. I run a gifted and talented school in New York City and it's elementary and middle school, and we are really going through a hard time now, not only with COVID, but with people that are teaching their children that they're entitled to everything, and that no one knows that they have to work for things and participate in your communities and support others.
I now have what we call an Anderson Activist class for the entire school where the children are going to be coming up with a particular passion and taking action on it. But when I'm in front of all these parents, and I need to explain to them the importance of what you said at the very end of your speech about duty, about commitment, about caring for others.
When I'm in front of these people and in front of the Board of Education, I mean, I have all sorts of waves of speaking to them, but in your words, how would you open up a conversation in order to get them to where I want to take them to make sure that their kids are active in their communities, the country, the world, etc.?
Well, again, I think that you can mention what some of the women and the men did at their age, at their age. That's a main thing because that would certainly spark their interest, and the story like the tank lady would certainly spark their interest.
Great. Oh, oh, she's Polish as well. So that's another story that she's tied into.
That's all right–
So we're going to stay in the back row to your right, ladies.
Bonjour, I think it would be not fitting to mention the book about Christine, the Spy who Loved. That's the name of the definitive book about Christine Granville. And it's like you had mentioned, truth is much better than any fiction you ever want. It reads better than any spy autobiography you will ever read when you go from Warsaw to Budapest to Cairo to England, then being flown into France.
It also touches on the Resistance Movements. She was the most famous Polish Resistance fighter who was ostracized from the Polish Resistance group because she worked for the British and then got her real fame in France being of Polish extraction. But she was just the bravest lady I have ever read about. So the Spy Who Loved. It's better than the Spy Who Loved Me, James Bond.
We're going to go to the back here, Joe.
Ma'am, what do you think was your greatest strength to be able to resist, and how much knowledge or hope did you have that the allies would free you?
Well, we knew they were coming. We knew that this was imminent to begin with, so it gave us a strength to go on. It was at a very, very difficult time because of course, as a German would be leaving before the invasion, they would leave their mark when they were leaving.
That was a very difficult time for all of the region in France and the little villages where they really left their mark. But you get your strength. I don't know. It's something that you do because you believe in something to begin with, and that is the strength that you need to go on, the belief in something.
Next question will be to your left, ladies.
I'm wondering if your mother and stepfather ever said, after the war, "Gee, we're really sorry. We locked you up and we wish you had continued," or–
How did they feel after the war?
We didn't talk about it.
We're going to go up to the front. To your left, ladies, with Christoph.
Thanks, madam. I'd like first to thank you, I guess, for all my French [?] making Calvados, that's good advertising, help us to go through US customs anyway. And also, you mentioned something that was very interesting. At the beginning of your speech about you went from Paris to Brittany. First, I'd like to know where exactly here.
And what is it the food issue? Because my friend Colette usually mentioned that we were lucky in Normandy. We had food next door, but in Paris, they starved the whole timer, and the only money available to change with the Germans or between French for informations was with food more than money.
Well, that is true. I think that you were much better off anywhere in the little villages or outside of the big metropolitan areas because you could go and get wood to heat the house, which we couldn't. And then you have usually some garden of your own where you grew some vegetables, and we couldn't do that in Paris, for instance.
We suffered a lot in Paris in the way of food that we didn't have. Even when you had your rations, sometimes you just went to the store and there just was nothing left. There was nothing. So that went on for quite a while, but you were much better off in the country, absolutely.
And Christoph referenced Colette Marin-Catherine, who was a friend of the museums and meets with our groups in Normandy, including our school groups, our students. There was a question here in the center aisle in the green jacket.
Nicole, I can see you're a very high energy, action-oriented person, which I think would be really good for a Resistance worker. But you also mentioned the fact that you were very young, and so most of the time you thought you were immortal. Was that true of most of the Resistance workers you encountered? Were they young and bold?
I think it was true of all the younger mens, the 17, the 18, the 19. After that, they got a little more, well, they got a little more knowledge about life, so they didn't quite feel that way. But it was very true of the very young ones, definitely, which is why they were able to do what they did, and some of my friends paid the price for it.
Ladies and gentlemen, please thank Steph Hinnershitz and Nicole Spangenberg for a wonderful presentation and for your service.
Thanks for listening. We encourage you to visit nationalww2museum.org/podcasts for more episodes. That is national W-W, the number two, museum.org/podcasts. Don't forget to check out the events tab on our homepage at nationalww2museum.org as well to catch some of these conversations and programs in real time.
The museum is marking a special year here in New Orleans. Coming at the end of 2023, we will be unveiling our capstone addition to our campus Liberation Pavilion. The pavilion will cover the closing months of the war and the post-war years, exploring the links between World War II and today. Equally important, the museum has the privilege and honor of hosting the 2023 Congressional Medal of Honor Society's annual convention, taking place in New Orleans from October 31st to November 4th.
The convention is one of our country's most prestigious and patriotic events providing unique opportunities for the public to engage with Medal of Honor recipients. Learn more at cmohs.org.
This series is made possible by the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation, which supports content like this from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Please remember to rate and subscribe. It goes a long way to helping others find this series. I'm Jeremy Collins signing off.